This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine


Send for your scribe

In the 15th century people wrote letters for many reasons – if they could write at all – and the first challenge was to get it down on paper

Late medieval letter-writers were concerned with many of the same topics that move us today. Men and women nurtured long-distance love affairs, lawyers debated legal disputes, and buyers of property discussed houses. Letter-writers ranged from high-ranking servants to royalty.

Women were prominent senders and recipients of mail. For example, there are over 60 surviving letters sent by Margaret Paston of Norfolk to her lawyer husband, John, whose work took him away to London (you can see one overleaf). Correspondence could range from the mundane to the out-of-the-ordinary. A letter that Margaret sent to John in 1448 urged him to dispatch crossbows to fight off attacks by hostile neighbours. Margaret reported that servants had made bars across the doors and were shooting from every corner of the house. Margaret then goes on to ask for almonds, sugar and cloth to make the children new gowns.

Correspondents often penned the letters themselves – especially if they were merchants and lower-ranking gentlemen. Yet the preferred option was for servants to do the writing – especially for gentlewomen, who rarely put pen to paper. Medieval people did not see handwriting as proof of a letter’s authenticity in the way that we do today. So when the handwriting of wealthy men or women does appear, it often looks inelegant – because they had no need to practise.

As the 15th century drew to a close, more correspondents began to write their own letters. However, before then, the best way to put words onto paper was through the hand of a trusted scribe. Once they’d finished writing, scribes could dry the ink quickly by dusting it with ashes from the chimney. Then they’d fold the letter, tie it up with strips of paper, and give it a wax seal.

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Find a messenger going the right way

In the days before a national postal service, selecting the right man or woman to convey the letter to its destination was critical

Once the name and address was written on the outside, the missive was ready to begin its journey. Though letters traversed England with great frequency in the 15th century, there was no sign yet of a postal system that we would recognise today. That only developed after the appointment of the first master of the posts, Brian Tuke, in 1512.

In the century before any signs of a regulated post, there were three main ways to send a letter: with your own servant, with a paid messenger, or with a carter, who hauled heavy goods around the country.

Using your own servant was the safest and cheapest option, but it was not always possible to spare a member of the household for what might turn out to be a long journey. Paying a messenger or carter to deliver your message was often more convenient, especially if the letter was following a well-travelled route. However, it could be difficult to find a messenger able to travel at the right time – so letters often sat unposted for days.

In 1448, one servant of the knight Sir John Fastolf wrote to excuse his tardiness in replying to his master’s correspondence: “If messengers to London could have been found before Christmas, the letters were ready to go.”


Have mail guarded from your enemies

Journeys in medieval England could be hazardous, so correspondents could only pray that their letters weren’t intercepted en route

“I would rather a letter be burnt than lost,” wrote a servant of Sir John Fastolf. Why was he moved to reach this conclusion? Because 15th-century England could be a hazardous place for a letter to travel around – especially if the letter contained sensitive information. Medieval writers lived in fear that an enemy might intercept a confidential correspondence and turn it against them as evidence in a legal dispute. The same servant mentioned above added a classical Latin metaphor to demonstrate the strength of his concern: “Ne forte videant Romani,” which translates as, “Lest perchance the Romans should see it.” Knowledge was power, especially in the possession of your enemies.

It was not just malice that threatened the medieval missive. With so many letters and other goods travelling around the country, there was a risk that a letter might go astray. This misfortune befell Walter Paston in 1479, when one of his letters was mistakenly dispatched to London with some money sent to the capital for safekeeping. Paston later explained this mishap thus: “Mister Brown had a lot of money in a bag, which he dared not bring with him, and at that time my letter was in the same bag. He forgot to take out the letter, and sent it all together to London.”


Try to track down the letter’s recipient

Pity the poor messenger. He might travel hundreds of miles to deliver a letter, then, once he’d arrived, could only pray that someone was home

If the letter’s safe passage to its intended recipient was a source of stress to the correspondent, then spare a thought for the man or woman charged with delivering it.

The medieval equivalent of today’s postman sometimes had to travel from one end of the country to the other to convey letters to the person to whom they were addressed. And, as medieval property-owners often moved regularly between several houses, there was no guarantee that the recipient would be at home when they got there.

One letter written in 1450 to the chaplain of Caister Castle in Norfolk gave no less than three alternative points of delivery for the bearer to try if the chaplain was not to be found at the castle.

And if the messenger arrived at the wrong time, he was often in for a long wait. A man who carried a letter for William Stonor of Oxfordshire reported back that he had tried to deliver it, but that the recipient was not at home. He reassured Stonor that he would try again later: “John Cheyney is out hunting with his hawk, as soon as he comes home I will deliver your letter.”


Bad news? Don’t shoot the messenger

Sometimes a letter could send its recipient into a fit of rage. That’s when it paid to select a messenger who was skilled in the art of conciliation

So the messenger has finally delivered your precious letter. Yet that didn’t necessarily mean their work was done. Sometimes they were also tasked with delivering a verbal message. In other instances – especially if the recipient was offended by the contents of the letter – they might have to act as a diplomat.

In 1449, the Paston family had to use a female servant to convey a letter to a man who had forcibly taken possession of their manor, because no male servant was willing to take the risk. At a time of heightened tension, using a woman letter-bearer paid dividends. She was, we’re told, received “with great cheer” and her spoken message was listened to graciously. Previous male messengers hadn’t enjoyed such a warm reception.


Burn after reading

Some people insisted that letters be destroyed, while – luckily for us – others were obsessed with filing them away

Some 15th-century writers gave instructions that their letters should be burnt after reading. Others put the most sensitive information at the foot of the page, intending it to be torn away and disposed of. Each of these methods was designed to restrict access to confidential information. However, the very survival of these letters shows that such commands were not always obeyed. It seems that medieval correspondents’ desire to avoid written records was equalled by an obsession with keeping evidence.

Sir John Fastolf had a specially designed archive in the tower of Caister Castle, where his servants collected his letters and other documents. Just like today, designing a method for sorting and storing this material could be difficult. Fastolf’s servants regularly had trouble finding written material once it had been put away. Even his own stepson complained that he could not find any of the records he needed, nor could “any man that he knew of”.

However, despite the flaws in the organisational system, it protected the letters from loss or damage. It is this obsession with preserving written evidence that we have to thank for the survival of medieval letters today – letters that tell us so much about how people organised their lives during that fascinating period.


Deborah Thorpe is a research associate for the University of York on the Digital Index of Middle English Verse project